At the time of the Republic of Carthage and the Roman Empire and due its exceptional geographical position, Djerba was the main gateway to North Africa. For centuries, its major cities were structured, as elsewhere in the world, in the form of densely populated coastal towns. Successive invasions by empires wishing to dominate the Mediterranean led the Djerbian islanders to turn their backs to the coast and take refuge in the inner part of the island.
In doing so, the inhabitants of Djerba adopted a fragmented land use, halfway between rural and urban, shaping the territory according to an atypical and ingenious division of space. By leaving the coasts and settling in the depths of the island, the Djerbian insulars shared the land equitably, allowing each family to have a farm of its own, able to ensure its subsistence and giving it a certain self-sufficiency. These farms were independent, hidden from view, generating agricultural and handcraft wealth, and interconnected by narrow sandy passageways that were both transportational and defensive. All of these farms were equipped with wells and massive rainwater storage facilities to ensure abundant harvests on an island with scarce aquifer resources.
Given the highly fragmented urban system, the meeting points of the Djerbians were the Houems or groups of nearby Houmas, which included places of worship and social, cultural and economic gatherings of the diverse Djerbian community.
This system turned Djerba into a garden-island with a uniquely fragmented urban landscape, where enemy incursions were doomed with failure because of the labyrinthine nature of the roads connecting the Menzels. This relative safety made it an ideal refuge for all persecuted minorities, whether they came from Europe or the Levant.